Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sewell and theory

William Sewell’s article on the shift from social to cultural history would have been a much more useful text to include alongside Thompson, et al., last week, because (while it is a commentary on the domination of cultural history in the field in recent years) it also provides a much clearer picture of what social history is, and isn’t. Part of this clarity comes from Sewell’s placement of social history and cultural history in a sort of opposition—and also comes from Sewell’s distinctions between history/historians and the various fields and practitioners of social science.

Causing me further consternation is the question (in my mind) about where history is going. My understanding of history has been of an interdisciplinary, multi-theory (or theory-less), interpretive field; certainly a field without objective truth, regardless of the level of rigor applied to historical inquiries. However, I suddenly find mine to be a minority position—and I’m surprised. It’s not that the people around me (classmates and some professionals) would take such a hard line stance about objectivity, but what they’re saying, and what they’re writing, is in favor of a far more positivist viewpoint. They are skeptical about interpretation, find repellent the use of memory as historical document, and call incessantly for admission upon admission of bias, or uncertainty.

Added to this is Sewell’s implication that historians borrow theory from the social sciences, and twist, bend or amalgamate when the theory doesn’t quite fit… and that historians ought to be talking about, and developing theory from within. Sewell also discussed his wariness about the shift to cultural history and the large abandonment of social history, and what problems this causes. If social history borrows the language and methods of the sciences and the social sciences (quantitative data, for example, or creating theory based on events or social trajectories), then cultural history focuses too much on the individual circumstance to the exclusion of generalizable trends.

I never thought that Marshall Sahlins could be placed in opposition to, say, Natalie Zemon Davis, but apparently I’ve been missing great rifts between fields. Possibly I have not been careful enough about discovering what individual historians are doing when they write. I should know, I suppose, whether GA's writing is more oriented towards the social sciences or the humanities, at the very least (I suspect the latter, but I’m inclined to think it weaves back and forth over the boundary I used to ignore).

Some of this, I think, is due to the particular structure of the Core at the U of C, where I believe the emphasis was on the crossover of sociological thought, historical anthropology, intellectual history, literature, and the evolution of scientific thought. I realize this seems at once obvious and overreaching. Yes, the fields are connected—and no, they’re not. The social sciences do attempt to find social theory—something approaching a scientific theory that may be applied to many circumstances and with roughly the same results. Yet the historian’s approach is more complex and messy (despite, at the U of C, being a segment of the Social Sciences Division).

And then in the intervening (almost) ten years, I’ve had the chance to see just that many more ambiguities. Is the positivist thinking I’m seeing here, or the new-new social/cultural history Sewell calls for—are these the histories of the future? Probably to my disadvantage I am unwilling to discount any method, theory, or non-theory as the “wrong” way to do history. I’m sure I’m supposed to come down on a side—and if I do, will I then be hopelessly out-of-date?

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